'Djokovic Doctrine': Top doctors blast feds for suppressing science of COVID natural immunity
Congressional Democrats portray infection as inherently dangerous, flirting with zero-COVID assumptions. Fauci scientist blames "misleading messaging" on COVID for decline in routine vax rates.
With COVID-19 vaccines steadily losing effectiveness against evolving variants for two years — the newly authorized and unpopular bivalents included — congressional Democrats are belatedly acknowledging the shots have some limitations.
What they won't concede: recognizing natural immunity is not a slippery slope to COVID infection parties, premised on the kid-focused chickenpox parties of prior generations.
Democrats and Republicans on the doctor-heavy House Oversight Coronavirus Pandemic Subcommittee invoked dueling studies on the durability of immunity from infection versus vaccination throughout a hearing Thursday on the United States' near-lone refusal to recognize natural immunity, subjecting millions of recovered Americans to work and school vaccine mandates.
Tempers flared occasionally.
When a Republican witness said "equitable" mandates would recognize relatively higher natural immunity rates in minority communities, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) deemed the opinion "biased, xenophobic and absolutely incorrect." He previously tried to discredit a GOP witness as a white supremacist.
Led by Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.), GOP lawmakers cited repeated false or misleading statements by President Biden, outgoing CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and then-White House COVID adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci that COVID vaccines are a "dead end" for SARS-CoV-2 or at least prevent transmission, hospitalization and death.
Medical witnesses for Republicans agreed federal officials had no supporting data, contradicted existing evidence or kept spreading falsehoods after the Delta variant wave of breakthrough infections in summer 2021.
Official disregard for natural immunity also meant recovered people were taking full courses of COVID vaccines away from vulnerable uninfected people during the early months of limited supply, Johns Hopkins medical professor Marty Makary said.
"Why would you give two life preservers [vaccine doses] when some people were dying with none?" he asked, noting that doctors "custom tailor" treatments all the time.
The feds instead adopted the "Novak Djokovic doctrine," a term Makary used several times to refer to the Serbian tennis star whose ban from U.S. competition for refusing vaccination ended Thursday.
Democrats repeatedly equated risk-stratified vaccination decisions with the "mass infection strategy" they ascribed to then-Trump White House COVID adviser Scott Atlas, who rejects the characterization.
"Nobody is naturally immune" but GOP witnesses seem to have the "subtext" of the "Atlas dogma," said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, the full committee's top Democrat.
Makary shot back that Democrats should compare Michigan to Sweden: With comparable population and demographics yet opposing pandemic policies, the latter had half as many COVID deaths.
Democrats insisted infection was inherently dangerous even "for healthy individuals" while claiming vaccines are potent against less severe outcomes such as long COVID and multi-system inflammatory syndrome for children.
"Who wants to get sick and miss work? Who wants to transmit this to your little one or elderly grandparent?" said California Rep. Raul Ruiz, the subcommittee's top Democrat. "Let me clear up another misinformation [sic] … vaccines help reduce transmission … it's not a simple black-or-white, 100% or not" effective.
"Children do serve as a vector of transmission" to high-risk individuals in the same home, said Democrats' lone witness, Tina Tan, vice president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, who wore a mask when not speaking. But she agreed that vaccine mandates Ruiz deemed "commonsense" at one time are not supported by data "at this time."
"Should we have been a bit more nuanced? Of course," Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) said, regarding possible exceptions for natural immunity, while denying the recovered were categorically excluded in healthcare settings.
A National Academy of Medicine member, Makary coauthored a widely read Journal of the American Medical Association study last year that found antibodies from recovery lasted up to two years, but tech platforms censored it for promoting "vaccine hesitancy," he said.
Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) said she was also censored and "reported to the Board of Medicine" for advocating risk-stratification.
Makary blasted the "intellectual dishonesty of public health officials" who ignored the history of natural immunity going back to the 5th century Athenian plague and assumed COVID, unlike similarly dangerous coronaviruses SARS and MERS, "would break the rule" of recovery protection.
He mocked the quality of evidence the feds use, particularly the CDC's "joke" of a journal, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which is not peer-reviewed. Medical professionals have ripped MMWR's methodology in several COVID-related studies, including long COVID.
When Makary noted the CDC doesn't recommend chickenpox vaccination for recovered kids, Ruiz interrupted to claim COVID was markedly different. The Johns Hopkins professor told Democrats to consider the "perfect comparison" of Sweden and Michigan.
The feds did not "adjust to emerging data" in the first year of the pandemic, said National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases research scientist Margery Smelkinson, speaking for herself. She has emerged as a vocal critic of U.S. pandemic policy particularly around schools but usually hides her affiliation with the NIAI, which Fauci ran for four decades.
Beyond the experience of schools in other countries that remained open, Smelkinson said U.S. officials ignored research on strong T-cell responses from recovery, negligible reinfection rates following even mild infection and two-decade antibody protection from COVID predecessor SARS.
Other vaccine rates are falling in part due to "misleading messaging and inflexible policies" on COVID, Smelkinson said.
"Our public health system today should be shouting" to parents the importance of routine vaccinations while emphasizing COVID vaccines are "more of a therapeutic," subcommittee Chair Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) said.
He faulted Democratic colleagues for making "blanket statements" that COVID vaccines have no drawbacks.
"We don't have a five-year study" or longer to demonstrate their long-term safety, and the vaccines are known worldwide for elevated rates of myocarditis in young men, he said, promising the subcommittee will review the integrity of the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System.
One of many subcommittee doctors, Wenstrup said he recommended one Pfizer dose to a father for his healthy son, but the school board required two. "We can't have a 5-year-old girl get 77 doses" over her lifetime, Makary said.
The Facts Inside Our Reporter's Notebook
- newly authorized and unpopular bivalents
- He previously tried to discredit a GOP witness as a white supremacist
- Johns Hopkins medical professor Marty Makary
- Tina Tan
- Journal of the American Medical Association study
- history of natural immunity going back to the 5th century Athenian plague
- ripped MMWR's methodology
- long COVID
- vocal critic of U.S. pandemic policy